BioNTech develops potential vaccine for multiple sclerosis

Scientists at Germany’s BioNTech who worked with US pharma company Pfizer to develop a COVID-19 vaccine have employed the same technology to develop a vaccine which they say cures multiple sclerosis in mice.

The MS vaccine, just like its COVID-19 counterpart, uses a piece of genetic material called mRNA that is injected into a person’s arm and forces the body’s cells to produce a protein that help against the disease.

In the case of COVID-19, if a person later contracts the disease, the immune system is able to quickly fight it by creating antibodies before the virus can spread, scientists say.

BioNTech CEO, Ugur Sahin, led the research showing that an mRNA vaccine might also work in multiple sclerosis, Yahoo Finance quotes a pharma news outlet, Fierce Biotech, as saying.

Sahin’s team showed that an mRNA vaccine encoding a disease-related autoantigen successfully improved MS symptoms in sick animals and prevented disease progression in rodents showing early signs of MS.

Sahin, along with colleagues at BioNTech and scientists at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, hypothesised that an mRNA vaccine could help the immune system tolerate specific MS-related proteins without compromising normal immune function.

With the MS vaccine, the mRNA technology stops the body’s immune system from attacking neurons in the brain and spinal cord which can lead to the loss of bodily function.

Clinical trials on mice revealed the vaccine not only stopped the disease from progressing but restored some motor skills that had been lost.

Image credit: VeryWell

Though experts say each case of Multiple Sclerosis is unique, they say a particular set of symptoms is really common, and they include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle-related symptoms
  • Bowel and bladder symptoms
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Vision problems
  • Vertigo
  • Pain and other sensory symptoms

Up until very recently, researchers said it had been difficult to confirm suspected cases of Multiple Sclerosis in Nigeria due to the paucity of diagnostic facilities.

“The availability of magnetic resonance imaging has enabled an increased confidence in making the diagnosis,” a 2019 four-man study led by Jane Owo Anyiam of the Department of Paediatrics, Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria, Kaduna State, noted.

It was titled Primary progressive multiple sclerosis in a 10-year-old Nigerian boy and published in Sahel Medical Journal, an official publication of the Usmanu Danfodiyo University Teaching Hospital, Sokoto.

According to the UDUTH researchers, a 10-year-old boy presented with two-year history of inability to either walk or use the left upper limb and a year’s history of progressive loss of vision.

“The illness started with limping of the right lower limb, which progressed to involve the left lower limb within six months.

“The weakness progressed gradually over 12 months to culminate in the boy’s inability to either walk or use the left upper limb.

“A year before presentation, he developed progressive visual impairment, which led to his inability to see with both eyes at the time of presentation.

“These symptoms were insidious in onset and associated with nasal and slurred speech, hesitancy and incomplete voiding, and occasional jerky movement of the lower limbs,” the researchers narrated.

They said that systemic review revealed no fever, jaundice, weight loss, or paleness of the body.

“Neurological symptoms such as headache, convulsions, loss of consciousness, hypoesthesia, or paresthesia were not present,” they added.

They said the 10-year-old boy had no changes in his personality and handwriting or decline in school performance.

“There was no hearing impairment, incontinence of faeces or the urine, reddening, tearing, or discharge from the eyes.

“On his academic performance rating, he was among the first 10, although he was in Primary Two at 10 years due to late school enrollment.

“He has, however, dropped out of the school for up to a year on account of these illnesses,” they wrote in their findings.

The patient was managed with daily physiotherapy on admission, alongside other relevant therapies during which he reportedly had an appreciable improvement in muscle power before he was discharged.

“The patient, however, was lost to follow-up after discharge despite appropriate counseling,” the scientists said.

According to an earlier study published in the Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research 1(1):107-13 by the duo of Ikenna Onwuekwe and Oluchi Ekenze, both of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, multiple sclerosis is a rare neurological disorder in black Africans.

They, however, reported a case of a 40-year-old Nigerian farmer of the Igbo ethnic group living in a rural community in Enugu who presented with clinical features suggestive of multiple sclerosis.

The UNN researchers stated, “Though the patient had a significant history of alcohol consumption, he had clinical and magnetic resonance imaging features diagnostic of multiple sclerosis.

“A 40-year old male farmer presented to the Neurology Clinic of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Enugu in January 2010 with a 10-year history of recurrent episodes of weakness of the legs.

“Each episode was sudden, affected either limb alternately, was associated with paraesthesia [an abnormal sensation, typically tingling or pricking caused chiefly by pressure on or damage to peripheral nerves] and would resolve spontaneously after a few days or weeks without any intervention.

“Over the years, he became unable to walk. The sphincters and vision were unaffected. A week prior to presentation, he developed tremors of the hands with disorientation.”

They concluded that this report of a case of multiple sclerosis suggests a need for clinicians in Africa to increase their index of suspicion in probable clinical scenario, especially where magnetic resonance imaging exists.

Also, a five-man study led by Njideka Okubadejo of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, and published in peer-reviewed journal, Neurology, discussed the challenges of diagnosing and treating the condition.

Writing their findings, the scholars said, “Multiple sclerosis is reportedly rare in western Africa.

“Earlier researchers categorically stated that MS did not occur in these populations.

“Diagnosis may have been hampered by limited recognition of symptoms, widespread cultural misconceptions of origin of neurological symptoms, dearth of neurology content in medical curriculum, severe shortage of neurologists, challenges relating to referral systems, and limited access to radiologic and laboratory facilities.”

They, however, noted that, over the last two decades, gradual inroads have been made in all these areas, facilitating the diagnosis of this previously unrecognised condition.

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